In Hair, one of the principal characters, Claude Bukowski, is greatly enamoured of “Manchester, England, England/ Across the Atlantic Sea”, and completes the thought by singing: “And I’m a genius, genius/ I believe in God/ And I believe that God/ Believes in Claude.”
Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter can rest easy with their lyrical crowns unthreatened, but there’s still a lovely innocence to those words, and its particularly warming to hear them being sung in Manchester, England, England itself, where the nascent but already fast-growing Hope Mill Theatre is staging an alternately smart and bracing revival.
On the one hand, so many of composer Galt MacDermot’s melodies are now so familiar that it feels a bit like Jersey Boys does, with the bonus of a famous nude scene to end the first act. But on the other, this is also a show that captures the essence of its late-1960s counter-cultural moment, when hippies gathered together in ‘tribes’ of like-minded people of protest, particularly against the Vietnam War, for which one of this group’s number – the aforementioned Claude – has been conscripted to serve in the army to fight.
That helps the show maintain something of a dramatic spine, though it has to be said that the book is not always entirely coherent, seemingly written in a bit of a drug haze: “Golden living dreams of visions/ Mystic crystal revelation/ And the mind’s true liberation”, goes another lyric, in a show that celebrates getting high and getting laid.
But the show itself is a natural high, and Jonathan O’Boyle’s production left me walking on air. That’s partly thanks to the thrilling musical values of a cast of great voices – stand-outs include Robert Metson’s handsome Claude, Laura Johnson’s Sheila and Shekinah McFarlane’s Dionne – and the band led by Gareth Bretherton, but also the effortlessly natural movement of choreographer William Whelton, co-founder of the venue.